'Westworld': "Phase Space"

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
A Still from 'Westworld', Season 2, Episode 6, "Phase Space".

We're Not at Full Apocalypse Yet

Season 2 / Episode 6 / Written by Gina Atwater and Carly Wray / Directed by Tarik Saleh / Originally Aired May 27, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Phase Space” begins with a role reversal, one that upends the viewer’s understanding of Westworld’s events stretching back to the beginning of Season 1. Meanwhile, the episode concludes with a cliffhanger twist that, while not entirely unforeseen, is nonetheless splendidly staged. Unfortunately, the galvanic quality to these bookends only draws attention to the deficiencies of the intervening material. This isn’t to say that “Phase Space” is poorly executed. It’s a perfectly functional Westworld episode, and Swedish graffiti artist and filmmaker Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hotel Incident) acquits himself well on the directing front – particularly in a Shogunworld katana duel and in the episode’s final scene.

The dilemma is that scripter Carly Ray (returning from “Reunion”) and staff writer Gina Atwater devote an inordinate amount of time to wrapping up existing subplots and kicking off new ones, without delivering much in the way of resonant dramatic beats. The exception is arguably a scene where Maeve (Thandie Newton) finally arrives at the homestead where her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) still dwells, only to find that the girl has been given a replacement “mother” (Erica Luttrell) and doesn’t even recognize Maeve. It’s a heartbreaking turn of events, in large part due to the utter predictability of it. Lee (Simon Quarterman) previously told Maeve that this was exactly what would happen, attentive viewers likely anticipated that this reunion would be a deflating event, and Maeve herself always knew, on some level, that she was chasing a phantom. None of that diminishes the anguish of the moment when it finally arrives; if anything, the inevitably intensifies it.

However, “Phase Space” undercuts the lingering agony of this scene by derailing it with yet another Ghost Nation attack, one that mirrors the homestead assault that Maeve recalls from her past (or, at least, she thinks she recalls it). Elsewhere, the episode is mostly preoccupied with the sort of housekeeping that can sometimes bedevil more sprawling television series. The welcome Shogunworld storyline from “Akane No Mai” is tied off in a wistful but somewhat underwhelming manner. After the aforementioned sword duel between the army officer Tanaka (Masayoshi Haneda) and the ronin Musashi (Kiroyuki Sanada) – a confrontation that is well choreographed and suitably gory, but essentially a digression – both Musashi and the geisha “madam” Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) elect to remain behind in Shogunworld while Maeve and her posse return to Westworld. There’s a strong sense that while the hosts from the two parks learned some vital facts about themselves and their world through their cross-genre interactions, the two groups are more akin to ships passing in the night than genuine allies.

The effects of Delores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) forced reprogramming of Teddy (James Mardsen) are revealed to be a bit more disturbing than anticipated. Predictably, Delores’ former white knight is now a ruthless bad boy, but rather than a dead-eyed Manchurian candidate in the service of her revolution, he’s all passive-aggressive asides and impulsive violence. (Indeed, he seems to remember that she forcibly changed his personality, and he’s not happy about it.) At one point, Teddy summarily executes a park security official without waiting for Delores’ say-so, the sort of individualistic act that her other minions, such as Angela (Talulah Riley), would never commit. The lingering, perturbed reaction shots of Delores suggest that she’s already having buyer’s remorse about Teddy 2.0. Her doubts about his loyalties have been mutated rather than mollified: Where before she feared that he didn’t have the spine to see their insurrection through to the end, now she’s concerned that he may be an uncontrollable junkyard dog.

The interactions between William (Ed Harris) and his daughter Grace (Katja Herbers) are one of this episode’s acting highlights, if only because Grace is the first human woman that has ever stood up to the late-model Harris version of William. It’s refreshing to see, and Herbers verbally spars with Harris in a way that teases out a bit of William’s oft-hidden humility and humanity. (William’s crotchety inability to even acknowledge that his adult daughter might have had a robot sex romp in Rajworld is a highlight.) Of course, Grace’s obvious intelligence and cynicism just make it even more frustrating when her father ditches her the next morning – she should have seen that one coming.

The same could be said of Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) reappearance, which canny viewers had probably long ago riddled out as a likely reveal this season. (Kudos for HBO, at least, for wisely keeping Hopkins’ name out of the opening credits.) There were only so many candidates for the missing, 3D-printed identity sphere that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) pocketed at a Delos laboratory in one of the previous episode’s flashbacks. Although “Phase Space” doesn’t explicitly confirm that this was Ford’s digital brain, it seems the most likely justification for the man somehow resurfacing within the virtual reality inside the Cradle – which, evocative name notwithstanding, simply appears to be Westworld’s gigantic server farm. It certainly explains why Delos’ efforts to hack into the park’s systems are being stymied by mysterious, improvisational countermoves, as Elsie (Shannon Woodward) uncovers. It makes sense, in a way. Ford always spoke of Westworld as his creation, a reality where he was God. Where else would he want to live out his immortal existence but in a digital simulacrum of that same world?

The most gob-smacking twist that “Phase Space” presents, however, is proffered in the first two or three minutes of the episode. (This gives everything else that subsequently occurs a tinge of the unreal; the viewer spends the rest of the episode reeling from that opening reveal and attempting to sort out its implications.) What appears to be one of the numerous Socratic dialogues between Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) the creator and Delores the creation is, in fact, a kind of training exercise between Delores and Bernard, Arnold’s android replacement. The roles are reversed and reconfigured, with Delores taking command of the session and reprimanding Bernard for deviating from his script. The goal of their conversations is, she says, “fidelity,” a callback to the tests performed on the resurrected James Delos in “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” The potential inferences of this scene are far-reaching if still somewhat hazy – Have all of “Arnold” and Delores’ exchanges actually been Bernard training sessions? – but it’s exactly the sort of narrative upheaval that showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan do so well. Given that’s it far and away the most potent moment in the episode, it’s just a shame they didn’t save it for the end.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • The only Shogunworld host to follow Maeve back to Westworld is tattooed archer Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto). One suspects that it’s not loyalty to Maeve’s personal quest that entices her to jump genres, however, but her bizarre, semi-autoerotic fascination with her Westworld “doppelbot” Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Hanaryo acquiesces to a stylish Western-themed costume change at some point after parting ways with Musashi.

  • Speaking of the ronin: Although his decision to remain in Shogunworld effectively brings that park’s storyline to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying end, Musashi offers an intriguing justification. He argues that he prefers to honorably defend his realm rather than to search for an indefinite “safe space” outside the Delos parks – as Maeve eventually plans to do. So far, the hosts have been either eager to escape (e.g., Maeve and Delores) or too firmly embedded in their old loops to even imagine a life on the outside. Musashi seems to be the first android that, when presented with the option to leave, prefers to remain behind, transforming the post-human Shogunworld into a home rather than a prison. (The notion of a “wild” android park is certainly provocative, and disruptive of the escape vs. slavery binary that has dominated the series thus far.)

  • For a moment it seemed like the Mesa’s technicians were going to use a much more gruesome method to keep Peter (Louis Herthum) from escaping – Boxing Helena, anyone? – but nailing him to a table works just as well, with the added bonus of the crucifixion subtext.